CA Supreme Court: Voters Did Not Amend 3 Strikes Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 07, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Californians approved Prop. 47 to reduce sentences for certain drug and theft crimes and to allow some prisoners to petition for lesser sentences after convictions.

But that proposition did not change the Three Strikes Reform Act under Prop. 36, which voters enacted two years earlier to reduce sentences when a defendant's third strike was not serious or violent.

That's the last ruling from the California Supreme Court in People v. Valencia. But it was a hard-fought decision as the justices split 4-3 in their interpretation of the voter-approved laws.

"Unreasonable Risk of Danger"

Both initiatives said a judge could decide whether to reduce a sentence based on whether it would pose an "unreasonable risk of danger" to the public. However, Prop. 47 said "unreasonable risk" meant "an unreasonable risk that the petitioner will commit a new violent felony."

In Valencia, the majority said Prop. 47 voters did not intend to change Prop. 36. The Three Strikes Law applied to repeat offenders who had been sentenced to 25 years to life.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote that none of the ballot materials for Prop. 47 referred to three-strikes prisoners. If it voters intended to reduce their sentences, she said, it would "result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36."

"Instead, Proposition 47 explicitly assured voters that the sentences of persons convicted of dangerous crimes and various sex crimes would not change," she said, joined by Justices Leondra Kruger, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan.

"Judicial Legislation"

In dissent, Justice Goodwin Liu countered their reading of the ballot measure. He said the majority had crossed the line from "statutory interpretation to judicial legislation."

"When the voters enacted Proposition 47, they spoke clearly on how widely its re-sentencing criteria would apply," Liu said in the consolidated appeals of David Valencia and Clifford Chaney.

Valencia was convicted of kidnapping, making criminal threats, resisting arrest by threat or violence, and twice for corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant. Chaney was convicted six times of armed robbery and conspiring to commit armed robbery, along with a third strike for three felony drunk driving convictions.

"We cannot now tell inmates like David Valencia and Clifford Chaney, whose third strike was neither serious nor violent, that what Proposition 47 plainly says is not what the voters really meant," he said.

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